Seafarer's professions and ranks

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Seafarers hold a variety of professions and ranks, and each of these roles carries unique responsibilities which are integral to the successful operation of a seafaring vessel. A ship's bridge, filled with sophisticated equipment, requires skills differing from those used on the deck, which houses berthing and cargo gear, which requires skills different from those used in a ship's engine room, and so on.

The following is only a partial listing of professions and ranks. Ship operators have understandably employed a wide variety of positions, given the vast array of technologies, missions, and circumstances that ships have been subjected to over the years. Usually, seafarers work on board a ship between three and six years. Afterwards they are well prepared for working in the European maritime industry ashore.[1] A ship's crew can generally be divided into four main categories: the deck department, the engineering department, the steward's department, and other. Generally, there are some differences between naval and civilian seafarers. One of them is that the seafarers on merchant vessels are usually not of the same nationality, so that special cross-cultural training is required, especially with regard to a lingua franca.[2] Moreover, administrative work has increased considerably on board, partly as an effect of increased focus on safety and security. A study shows that due to this development certain skills are missing and some are desired, so that a new degree of flexibility and job sharing has arisen, as the workload of each crew member also increases.[3]

Modern ship's complement[edit]


Main article: Sea Captain

The captain or master is the ship's highest responsible officer, acting on behalf of the ship's owner. Whether the captain is a member of the deck department or not is a matter of some controversy, and generally depends on the opinion of an individual captain. When a ship has a third mate, the captain does not stand watch.

The captain is legally responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the ship as he/she is in command. It is his responsibility to ensure that all the departments under him perform legally to the requirements of the ship's owner.[clarification needed] The captain represents the owner and hence is called "master".

Deck department[edit]

Main article: Deck Department

Officers/ Licensed[edit]

Main article: Licensed mariner
Chief Officer/Chief Mate[edit]
Main article: First Officer
Epaulettes worn by the chief officer on merchant ships (similar to those worn by a commander in the commonwealth navies)

The Chief Officer/First Mate (often called the Chief Mate in the United States) is the head of the deck department on a merchant vessel, second-in-command after the ship's Master. The Chief Mate's primary responsibilities are the vessel's cargo operations, its stability, and supervising the deck crew. The mate is responsible for the safety and security of the ship, as well as the welfare of the crew on board. The chief mate typically stands the 4-8 navigation watch as OICNW (Officer in-charge of the navigational watch), directing the bridge team. Some crews have additional Third Mates, which allow the Chief Mate to not stand navigational watch, and focus more on cargo and deck operations. Additional duties include maintenance of the ship's hull, cargo gears, accommodations, the life saving appliances and the firefighting appliances. The chief mate also trains the crew and cadets on various aspects like safety, firefighting, search and rescue, and various other contingencies. The chief officer assumes command of the whole ship in the absence or incapacitation of the master.

Second Officer/Second Mate[edit]
Main article: Second mate

The Second Officer/Second Mate is a qualified OICNW watch stander, directing the bridge team and navigating the ship. The Second Mate is the 3rd most experienced deck department officer after the Captain/Master and Chief Mate. The Second Mates primary duty is navigational, which includes updating charts and publications, keeping them current, making passage plans, and all aspects of ship navigation. The Second Mate's other duties may include directing line handlers, cargo watches, directing anchor detail and training and instructing crew members.

Third Officer/Third Mate[edit]
Main article: Third mate

The Third Officer is the least experienced qualified OICNW watch-stander. When on navigational watch, the Third Mate directs the bridge team, maneuvering the vessel, keeping it safe and on track. The Third Mates primary duty is matters of safety, inspecting gear lockers, lifeboats, and all equipment onboard insuring that it is safe and operational. Other duties include directing line handlers, cargo watches, directing anchor details and training and instructing crew members.

Ratings / Unlicensed[edit]

Mariners without a certificate of competence are called ratings. They assist in all other tasks that can arise during a voyage. This includes for example, mooring, cleaning of the ship and its holds and repairing broken lines and ropes. These are physically challenging jobs and have to be done regardless of the weather.[1]


Highly skilled in marlinspike seamanship, the Bosun is the highest ranking unlicensed (rating) in the deck department. The Bosun generally carries out the tasks instructed by the Chief Mate, directing the Able Seaman and Ordinary Seaman. The Bosun generally does not stand a navigational watch.

Able Seaman/AB[edit]

An Able Seaman works under the Bosun, completing tasks such as working mooring lines, operating deck gear, standing anchor details, and working cargo. The AB also stands a navigational watch, generally as a lookout or helmsman.

Ordinary Seaman/OS[edit]

The lowest ranking personnel in the deck department. An OS generally helps out with work the Able Seaman are doing. Other tasks include standing lookout, and generally cleaning duties.

Engineering department[edit]

Officers / Licensed[edit]

The engineers are also called technical officers. They are responsible for keeping the ship and the machinery running. Today, ships are complex units that combine a lot of technology within a small space. This includes not only the engine and the propulsion system, but also, for example, the electrical power supply, devices for loading and discharging, garbage incineration and fresh water generators.[1]

Chief engineer[edit]

The chief engineer on a merchant vessel is the official title of someone qualified to oversee the engine department. The qualification for this position is colloquially called a "Chief's Ticket".

The Chief Engineer, commonly referred to as "The chief", or just "chief", is responsible for all operations and maintenance that have to do with all machinery and equipment throughout the ship. He may be paid on par with the captain, although he is never responsible for the action of ship. The chief engineer cannot assume command and the command always rests with the Captain of the ship, unless it is clearly mentioned within the safety management system.[citation needed]

Second engineer/first assistant engineer[edit]

The second engineer or first assistant engineer is the officer responsible for supervising the daily maintenance and operation of the engine department. He or she reports directly to the chief engineer.

Fourth engineer/third assistant engineer[edit]

The fourth engineer or third assistant engineer is junior to the second assistant engineer/third engineer in the engine department. The most junior marine engineer of the ship, he or she is usually responsible for electrical, sewage treatment, lube oil, bilge, and oily water separation systems. Depending on usage, this person is called "The Third", or "The Fourth", and usually stands a watch. Moreover, the fourth engineer may assist the third mate in maintaining proper operation of the lifeboats. In the U.S. fleet, it is not uncommon for the third engineer to carry the nickname "Turd Third" due to his/her sewage treatment responsibilities.[citation needed]

Ratings / Unlicensed[edit]

Qualified Member-Engine Department/QMED[edit]

The QMED is an unlicensed member of the engine department, with more experience than an Oiler.


The Oiler is an unlicensed member of the engine department, with more experience than a Wiper.


The wiper is an unlicensed member of the engine department, usually with the least experience.

Electrical department[edit]

Electrotechnical Officer[edit]

The electrotechnical officer sometimes referred to as the electrical engineer or simply electrician is in charge of all the electrical systems on the ship. The electrical engineer is one of the most vital positions in the technical hierarchy of a ship and engineer is responsible for their assigned work under the chief engineer’s instructions.

Unlike engineers the ETO does not carry out an assigned engine room "watch" instead there normally on call 24 hours a day and generally work a daily shift carrying out electrical and electronic maintenance, repairs, installations and testing.

Some shipping companies do not carry electrical officers on their ship to cut down the manning cost, and the electrical duties are carried by an engineer. This is usually the third engineer. However, many companies realized that electrical and electronic system requires some extra attention and therefore require an expert to attend them. This is especially true on diesel electric ships or vessels equipped with systems such as dynamic positioning.

On larger vessels such as cruise ships, electrotechnical officers can have ranks within there profession, such position names include, lead ETO, 1st Electrician, chief electrical officer or chief electrical engineer. In this situation, the highest ranked electrotechnical officer will report directly to the chief engineer. On special class ships such as FPSOs the electrotechnical officer can sometimes earn nearly the same wage as a chief engineer due to the complexity of the electrical systems on the ship.

As the technology advances, more automation and electronic circuits are replacing conventional and electrical systems. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) amended STCW 95 (also known as the Manila Amendment) on June 25, 2010 to introduce the certified position of Electro-technical officer in place of Electrical Officer.[citation needed]

Steward's department[edit]

Chief steward[edit]

The chief steward directs, instructs, and assigns personnel performing such functions as preparing and serving meals; cleaning and maintaining officers' quarters and steward department areas; and receiving, issuing, and inventorying stores. The chief steward also plans menus; compiles supply, overtime, and cost control records. The steward may requisition or purchase stores and equipment. Additional duties may include baking bread, rolls, cakes, pies, and pastries.

Chief cook[edit]

The chief cook is the senior unlicensed crew member working in the steward's department of a ship. His position corresponds to that of the Bosun in the deck department, the pump man in an oil tanker, and the electrician (but not ETO) in the engine department of a container ship or general cargo ship. He can be regarded as equivalent to a chief petty officer in the Navy.[citation needed]

The chief cook directs and participates in the preparation and serving of meals; determines timing and sequence of operations required to meet serving times; inspects galley and equipment for cleanliness and proper storage and preparation of food.[citation needed]

Royal Navy historical ship's complement


Relative ranks in the Royal Navy, c. 1810. Warrant officers are underlined in the chart.[4]

The Captain was a commissioned officer naval officer in command of a ship and was addressed by naval custom as "captain" while aboard in command, regardless of the officer's actual rank.

Wardroom officers[edit]

The Lieutenants were commissioned officers immediately subordinate to the captain. Lieutenants were numbered by their seniority within the ship, so that a frigate (which was entitled to three lieutenants) would have a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, and a third lieutenant. A first-rate was entitled to six lieutenants, and they were numbered accordingly.

The "Sailing Master" was a naval officer trained in and responsible for the navigation of a sailing vessel. The rank can be equated to a professional seaman and specialist in navigation, rather than as a military commander and was originally a warrant officer who ranked with, but after, the lieutenants and was eventually renamed to "navigating lieutenant" in 1867.

The Captain of Marines was the commissioned office in command of the Royal Marines on the ship.

The Purser was the officer responsible for all administration and of supplies such as food and drink, clothing, bedding, candles, the purser was originally known as "the clerk of burser.". Pursers received no pay but were entitled to profits made through their business activities. In the 18th century a purser would buy his warrant for £65 and was required to post sureties totalling £2,100 with the Admiralty.[5] They maintained and sailed the ships and were the standing officers of the navy, staying with the ships in port between voyages as caretakers supervising repairs and refitting.[6]

The Surgeon was the medical officer of the ship. Surgeons were ranked by the Navy Board based on their training and social status.[7] Surgeons were wardroom warrant officers with a high status, billeted along with the other officers in the wardroom.[8] Surgeons were assisted by surgeon's mates, who after 1805 were called "assistant surgeons".[9] The surgeon and his mates were assisted by boys, who were called "loblolly boys", named after the gruel commonly served in the sick bay.[7] A small number of doctors with a prestigious medical education were ranked as physicians; they would supervise surgeons on ships or run hospitals on shore.[10]

The Chaplain lead the ship's religious services. As an ordained minister his social status meant he was made an officer.

Standing officers[edit]

The Gunner was the warrant officer in charge of the ships's naval artillery and other weapons. He supervised the Armourer, the Gunners Mate and the Yeoman of the Power room.

The Boatswain (/ˈboʊsən/), bo's'n, bos'n, or bosun, was the warrant officer of the deck department. As deck crew foreman, the boatswain planned the day's work and assigned tasks to the deck crew. As work was completed, the boatswain checked the completed work was done correctly. He supervised the Ropemaker, the Boatswain's Mate and the Sailmaker.

The carpenter was the warrant officer who was responsible for the maintenance and repair of the wooden components of the ship. He supervised the Caulker, the Carpenter's Mate and the Master-At-Arms.

Cockpit mates[edit]

Originally, a master's mate was an experienced petty officer, who assisted the master, but was not in line for promotion to lieutenant.[11] By the mid-eighteenth century, he was far more likely to be a superior midshipman, still waiting to pass his examination for lieutenant or to receive his commission, but taking rather more responsibility aboard ship. Six master's mates were allowed on a first rate, three on a third rate, and two on most frigates.[12]

Senior Petty Officers[edit]

A Midshipman was an apprentice officer who had previously served at least three years as a volunteer, officer's servant or able seaman, and was roughly equivalent to a present day petty officer in rank and responsibilities. After serving at least three years as a midshipman or master's mate, he was eligible to take the examination for lieutenant. Promotion to lieutenant was not automatic, and many midshipmen took positions as master's mates for an increase in pay and responsibility aboard ship.

The Clerk was a literate worker who did administrative work on the ship.

The Armourer maintained and repaired the smaller weapons on the ship.

The Caulker maintained and repaired the caulking of the ship's hull.

The Ropemaker made, maintained and repaired ropes on board.

The "Master-at-arms" was a naval rating, responsible discipline aboard ship, assisted by Corporals.

Petty Officers[edit]

The Yeoman of the Sheets was in charge of the rope store. Given that the ship was rarely dry inside and the ropes rotted when wet, preserving the rope was a major problem.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Careers on board". Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  2. ^ "Cross-cultural training needs of seafarers, shore-based personnel and industry stakeholders" (PDF). Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  3. ^ Gesine Stueck. "2.1.Future demand of maritime professionals in the maritime and port industry". Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  4. ^ Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-87021-258-3. 
  5. ^ Royal Navy Customs and Traditions
  6. ^ Naval Historical Center (2005-07-20). "Why is the Colonel Called "Kernal"? The Origin of the Ranks and Rank Insignia Now Used by the United States Armed Forces". United States Navy. Retrieved 2007-05-26. 
  7. ^ King 2001, p. 32
  8. ^ King 2001, pp. 33
  9. ^ King 2001, p. 16>
  10. ^ King 2001, pp. 31
  11. ^ Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-87021-258-3. 
  12. ^ Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press. p. 328. ISBN 0-87021-258-3. 
  13. ^ The Wooden World: Anatomy of the Georgian Navy by N.A.M. Rodger, ISBN 978-0006861522

King, Dean (2001). A Sea of Words: Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales. Henry Holt. ISBN 0-8050-6615-2. Retrieved 2009-05-19. 

External links[edit]